New rules govern towers


As cellular phones, pagers and wireless computers take over the glove compartments and coat pockets of Howard Countians, county officials have approved new rules aimed at preventing the new technology from taking over the county skyline.

To improve the reception of cellular equipment, communications companies have barraged county officials with requests for zoning exceptions for new towers and thick metal poles for their cellular antennas. The county already has 30 communications towers and poles, ranging from 30 feet to 500 feet tall, with most in the 100- to-250-foot range.

Under rules signed yesterday by County Administrator Raquel Sanudo for vacationing County Executive Charles I. Ecker, companies wouldn't need to go through a lengthy approval process if they place their antennas where county officials want them to.

After the rules become effective Sept. 5, no zoning exception approval will be needed, for example, to put up a tower on government property or commercially zoned land. The way also will be clear for companies to mount their cellular, microwave or two-way radio antennas on existing towers.

Even as the legislation awaited a signature yesterday, the county Planning Board was reviewing yet another request for a communications pole in a residential area -- just where county officials don't want them.

The board voted 3-1 to recommend allowing American PCS Limited Partnership to place a 199-foot communications pole in the center of Lisbon's small residential area. The board's options to fight the pole were limited, because previous zoning exceptions and variances have been upheld by the courts.

"We're trying to discourage putting these things in residential areas," said County Councilman Dennis R. Schrader, a 3rd District Republican. "I think what this [the new law] does is it really sets some direction and streamlines the process."

The County Council approved the regulations unanimously Monday.

Council members expanded somewhat on the rules proposed by county planners, providing additional incentives to placing the facilities where the county wants them and removing penalties to keep them out of residential areas. Planners would have required the builder of a 250-foot tower, for instance, to have 23 acres as a buffer in a residential area.

One amendment the council approved will allow the structures even in the districts zoned for very light commercial activity. Another amendment will allow towers to be as close to residential property lines as they are tall, rather than twice their height, as county planners proposed.

Last month, New Jersey-based Nextel Communications Inc. became the first company to respond to county planners' urging to put such structures on county property and build them strong enough to hold other antennas.

It asked for a special zoning exception for a proposed 250-foot tower on county property off U.S. 1 near Savage. In late May, it changed its plans for another proposed tower in Marriottsville so it could accommodate antennas for competing firms and county emergency services.

Although he applauded the new rules, Planning Board member Theodore F. Mariani of Daisy believes the effort to curb the "visual pollution" caused by the towers may be futile.

He said later that the problem is especially acute in western Howard, where the area's bucolic character is threatened by phalanxes of communications poles and towers.

"The county is spending millions of dollars to preserve the historic farmland in the western part of the county, and now these towers are springing up," he said.

Mr. Mariani added that he feared federal communications officials would attempt to take regulation of communications structures away from local authorities, much the same way electric utilities are allowed to string power lines even where local officials object to them.

He told board members he would like to see the county own communications sites and lease them to communications companies, thereby controlling where the towers or poles are constructed.

But Mr. Mariani, himself a cellular-telephone user, acknowledged that county residents want better cellular service.

"I know that it's frustrating when I can't get a signal on my car phone," he said. "Does that mean we have to guarantee that we have full, 100 percent saturation of every square inch of the country?"

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